WASHINGTON — More than 400 groups, along with thousands of technologists and internet-freedom activists from throughout the world, have sent a letter to the U.S. Congress protesting detrimental moves by the newly installed leadership at the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM). These moves threaten to substantially disrupt the work of the Open Technology Fund (OTF) to support free speech and democratic principles around the globe.
OTF is an independent non-profit grantee of USAGM. Since OTF's inception in 2012, OTF has funded more than 400 open-source technology projects. Over the past eight years, OTF, and the technology projects it supports, have enabled more than 2 billion people in over 60 countries to more safely access the Internet and help free themselves from censorship and repressive surveillance. This is especially true in highly repressive countries such as China, Iran, Cuba, Russia, Turkey and Venezuela. Notable projects incubated and supported by OTF include Signal, Tor, WireGuard, Let’s Encrypt, Lantern, and Psiphon.
On June 4, 2020, President Trump’s appointee, Michael Pack, was confirmed by the Senate as the new CEO of USAGM. In his first days after assuming office, Pack implemented drastic changes at OTF, firing the leadership of OTF — President Laura Cunningham and CEO Libby Liu — and freezing the organization’s spending. He also “dismissed” the experienced diplomats on the organization’s bipartisan board of directors, attempting to replace them with a roster of highly partisan cronies. Pack also removed the leadership of Radio Free Asia, Radio Free Europe, Middle East Broadcast Networks and the Office of Cuba Broadcasting; the nonpartisan leaders of the Voice of America also resigned.
“OTF’s work to advance Internet freedom globally has received support from across the political spectrum because the rights to speak, to associate, to worship, and to access information online are fundamental to all human beings and transcend partisan politics,” said Laura Cunningham, OTF’s former President. “OTF’s success to date has been predicated on its commitments to transparency, open competition, expert due diligence, and upholding the highest technical standards possible. These commitments have earned OTF the trust of billions of users around the world. It has become abundantly clear in recent years that China, Russia, and Iran are willing to do, and spend, whatever it takes to control and manipulate the global Internet. Dismantling OTF in this critical moment will destroy trust in OTF-supported technologies; pave the way for authoritarian control over Internet connectivity; and jeopardize the billions of journalists, human rights defenders, and everyday citizens who rely on OTF technology worldwide.”
In response to the threats to OTF’s work, human rights, Internet freedom and technology groups worldwide are urging U.S. legislators to intervene. On Monday, 401 groups signed an open letter at the website saveinternetfreedom.tech that called on Congress to ensure that USAGM leadership “does not dismantle OTF, and, against the intent of Congress, rescind U.S. support for its essential work. The groups include Human Rights Watch, Wikimedia Foundation, United For Iran, Reporters without Borders, Mozilla, Internet Society Hong Kong Chapter, Freedom House, Citizen Lab, China Labor Bulletin, FrontlineDefenders and Article 19.
Read the full letter here: https://saveinternetfreedom.tech/
OTF has received widespread bipartisan support for its funding from Congress. In May, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act to protect the organization’s independence and sustain the development of open-source anti-censorship circumvention technology.
Last week, members of Congress from both parties released statements of support for the Open Technology Fund and expressed concerns about the actions of the new USAGM leadership. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) and Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), lead Republican sponsors of the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act, said in a statement that they were “troubled by the recent termination of Laura Cunningham and the OTF Board of Directors and are concerned about the future of the organization.”
Sen. Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) said: “Once the credibility is gone, nobody will ever trust a report from Radio Free Europe, Radio Marti, nor trust the tools of the Open Technology Fund.”
Members of the OTF Board of Directors, several of them former U.S. ambassadors, also have spoken out and highlighted the importance of OTF’s international work “to help cultivate multiple widely deployed circumvention technologies which provide users and publishers the ability to overcome the sophisticated censorship employed by China and Iran — and exported to 100+ countries around the world.”
OTF Board Member Ben Scott said: “The extraordinary show of support for OTF is a demonstration of its success and what is at stake if its work is disrupted. The vulnerable communities OTF serves rely on its tools because of the trust they have for open source technology and the credibility of the organizations that provide these tools. If we claim to support the principle of Internet freedom, we must oppose actions that would damage the global network of trusted institutions that make OTF's crucial work possible.”